A couple of days ago a reader, Nicholas Cantrell, posted a very interesting comment in my post “Nam Theun 2: Just about ready to start filling in.” The comment poised a number of questions, but if I can paraphrase just one of them, I think the basic premise was this: “how does the World Bank [or any of the financiers] ensure that the new lives of the resettled populations are sustainable in the long run?” The truth is, I ask myself the same question all the time.
I think one of the biggest challenges with a project like Nam Theun 2 is exactly the reader’s question: ensuring that in the long term, people are better off and that they can sustain their lifestyles. This is most likely the case for any large development project that either includes a relocation component or a change in lifestyles. As Ted Scudder (one of the members of the NT2 external Panel of Experts) outlines in his book, there are many, many cases where this has not happened. In this post, I’ll focus in the case of the resettled villagers, and leave some of the other issues for William and me to address in future postings.
Before the start of NT2 in 2005, the villagers living in the Nakai Plateau had been subsistence farmers living with what nature provided in an area characterized by poor soils, in houses that would be easily destroyed by rains or floods, with no access to health care or decent roads, and lack of clean water. The commitment between the Lao Government and NTPC, the power company (in the Concession Agreement - pdf) is that these resettled villagers will double their income five years after relocation through new livelihood activities and improved houses, roads and health services (described in my previous posts).
This is by far one of the most challenging aspects of the whole project as people’s living styles and production systems will have to change in order for them to achieve higher standards of growth (roughly from US$400 in 2004 to US$800 by 2011-12, or above the national poverty line – whichever is higher).
What this translates to is a different approach to living. The aim is to help the villagers grow rice in a more efficient and soil-friendly fashion (using more advanced agricultural techniques); to rotate crops so as not to exhaust the soil and be able to grow other crops that can be then sold and made a profit; to fish in the reservoir; to tend to individual fruit trees and gardens; to get revenues from community forestry development (wood products, charcoal...), and to tend to livestock, among other things.
While some of these things the villagers have already been doing (for instance livestock), some are new (charcoal). Of course for it to be sustainable, villagers have to know, like and understand what they are doing. Their involvement every step of the way is crucial. NTPC and the Lao Government have hired specialists on each of these areas who work with local Government counterparts and villagers to implement these new programs and help with the learning and transition process.
The end-goal is that households can individually adopt this multi-faceted system to diversify their production so that they will be able to generate income from fisheries, rice, other cash crops, livestock and forestry. Add to this the improved roads, new houses, electricity and water and health services, among others, and the idea is that, all-around, villagers have a better life.
Of course this is easier said than done. A lot of the process is ‘live and learn’, and what sometimes works for one family does not work for another. That is why the Lao Government, NTPC, the World Bank, the ADB, monitors like the POE, independent researchers from CIAT and many others, spend endless hours working, researching, implementing, discussing, fixing and consulting on this. Still, it’s a process and there are no “cookie cutter” solutions as the reader rightly pointed out. Flexibility is key, as is time (and then there’s the ‘meantime’, when the government and NTPC have to ensure they support the villagers while they make the transition and adapt accordingly, whether through food subsidies or other).
I know this is just a partial response to the issues raised, and they are central to the project – such as why we think poor people around the country as a whole will benefit from NT2. William and I will be sure to keep addressing these and other issues in this blog in the future.